The Baptism of Jesus

Don Alexander
Sermon Text: 

Preacher: Don Alexander

Sermon Text: January 12, 2020

The First Sunday after Epiphany

Genesis 12:1-4a; Psalm 121, Romans 4:1-5, 13-17: John 3:1-17

The Baptism of Jesus and Our Baptismal Covenant

In a lot of ways, this story of Jesus’ baptism is a head scratcher for me.  For starters, it’s clear that John is offering a baptism of repentance for sins.  Jesus was sinless, right?  What is he repenting? So, why is Jesus having John baptise him?  I suspect John is wondering the same thing when he asked “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” Jesus’ response seems cryptic. While I understand every word he uses I have practically no idea what he means when he says, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.”

I have wondered if Jesus wasn’t seeking John’s baptism on his own accord.  Perhaps he was following the will of the Father that he be baptized.  If so, it makes sense out of Jesus’ words.  His comment to John is basically a way of saying, ‘We need to do it this way because it’s the Father’s will for me and it is righteous to do the Father’s will.’

When I find myself with questions about a Gospel reading, I know there are a lot of folks much smarter and better trained in Scripture than me, so I like to look to see what other folks think. I discovered at least a half a dozen different theories as to why Jesus was baptised and I’ve learned two things.  First, no one actually has a plausible answer as to why Jesus asked for a baptism of repentance and second, no one seems willing to admit they simply don’t know. Is it possible, that if after 2,000 years theologians have not figured out why Jesus was baptized? Perhaps it isn’t for us to know?

What we do know is that baptism formed the bookends of Jesus’ life.  His baptism is understood as his initiation into his public life.  After he was baptised he went into the desert for 40 days and was tempted three times and then began his public preaching.  And recall in the last Chapter of Matthew, at the very end of the Gospel, Jesus issues the great commission. He tells the apostles “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.”

So what is the lesson we should glean from this story? For starters, baptism is a physical act, albeit with spiritual meaning, and points to Jesus’ human nature which is something we too share. And frankly, I find Jesus’ human nature more understandable than his divine nature. It is something we can relate to, observe, and if we choose, to imitate.  Similarly, our baptism is our initiation into Christianity where we become members of the body of Christ. And while I can’t rationally explain it, somehow it seems intuitively correct that Jesus would be baptized so that we could share in his baptism.

I also suspect, baptism will form the bookends to our lives.  It certainly has formed our initiation into the body of Christ and I expect how well we live out our baptismal covenant will form our final judgement.  And for each and everyone one of us, I hope the response we hear is, “Well done good and faithful servant.”

Which leads to the question, how have we lived into our baptismal covenant?  This covenant, as found in the BCP, appears in a question and response format.  The first three questions address our common belief in a trinitarian God.  The celebrant asks, ‘Do you believe in God the Father?’  and then, ‘Do you believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of God?’ and then, Do you believe in God the Holy Spirit?  Our responses follow the Apostle’s Creed and express our belief in the Father the creator, the Son redeemer, and Holy Spirit, the comforter, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, and life everlasting.

These are our core beliefs.  Nary a single one of these beliefs is provable beyond doubt and hence requires faith.  I think we generally recognize and understand that these core beliefs unite us as Christians regardless of denomination.  But I think it is just as important that we don’t use these beliefs in a way that divides us from our Jewish, Muslem, Buddhist, Hindu, and other non-Christian neighbors. This morning we heard Peter remind us that Jesus is Lord of all, not just the Lord of Israel and that “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.” Barbara Brown Taylor, in her book Holy Envy shows us how to appreciate and honor non-Christian traditions.  These traditions meet Peter’s standard of worshiping a God who shows no partiality and who sees the goodness in those who love God and their neighbor as themselves.  In short, our beliefs are good and befitting of Christians but they should never be weaponized and used to demean or denigrate the beliefs of any person that fears God.

The remaining questions explore our actions, both in church and outside of church. Intriguingly, the answer to each question is the same, “I will with God’s help.”  This response seems perfect to me.  It reflects our intention to live a Christian life and simultaneously admits that we need God’s grace to follow through.  The answers place  our actions in relationship with God.  We are not acting solely on our own. When said authentically, it is a humbling response.

The next question, “Will you continue in the apostles' teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers?” seeks our commitment to be fed by the word and sacrament so that we can be faithful to what Jesus taught.  It seeks to make the Gospel the lens through which we see the world.  This is easier said than done.  Too often we tend to interpret the Gospel through the lens of political beliefs or popular ideas of what’s right and wrong.  The question asks us to root our values in the teachings of Jesus and nothing else.

The last four questions get into what I think is the heart of Christianity - the ones that affect how we live.

Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?  This question gets to the heart of humanity because it recognizes we will fail and what it asks is that we repent and return to the Lord. Rather than idealizing the notion that we shouldn’t fail, the question really asks, will we keep trying to follow Jesus after we fail.  It encourages us not to give up.

Next we’re asked, Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?  Whenever I hear this question I can’t help but think of St. Francis and his exhortation that we live the Gospel always, and only use words if necessary.  Living a life that proclaims the Gospel is a challenge but I see it done by All Souls members regularly.  In times of need there is always a generous outpouring of support in terms of time spent visiting, food preparation and delivery, and other services.  And we proclaim the Gospel to our neighbors when we winterize homes or hand out sack hunger bags.

Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?  This is the one I find the most difficult because some people are just plain difficult to be around.  Like my mother, God rest her soul, they push my buttons.  I find it hard to respect, let alone love, people who profess pride about their ignorance and deny science.  How many times have I found myself wondering what is it that God loves about this person as they tell me climate change isn’t a problem, or recycling is more problematic than landfilling, or that renewable energy is a subversive plot of some sort.  Too often I lose patience and find myself going back to an earlier question and repenting my words.  Who is it you struggle to love as yourself?

And the final question is, Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?  We live in a divided world, a divided country, and even a divided city.  No one wants to hear it but we are nowhere close to living in a world where there is justice and peace among all people.  Pick a topic, race, religion, ethnicity, sexuality, economic justice, or any of a dozen other areas of inequality and ask yourself, what have you done to strive for justice and peace?  It’s easy to look at the global problems and opt out realizing the solutions are out of our reach.  But I think we need to act locally and be the solution here, now, right where God has planted us.  Make justice and peace part of your grassroots baptismal commitment this year.

I do believe, with all my heart, that when we live out this baptismal covenant, we are in fact following Jesus and the first words we’ll hear as we enter the Kingdom will be, “Well done good and faithful servant.”

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